CRUISING THE MEDITERRANEAN WITH SILVERSEA - The Sicilian town of Taormina is one of those places that struck a bell when I saw the name. But I had no mental image of it.
My cruise ship, the incredible Silversea Silver Spirit (I miss it already) had it listed as a potential excursion during our 8-hour stop in Sicily the other day so I checked it out on google images (what did we do before google, I haven’t a clue) and thought, Wow. Then I got there and thought, “Double Wow.”
The name comes from the Greek words for bulls head, as they thought the land was shaped in that fashion. Maybe so. Maybe not. But our tour guide told us it was perhaps the original international tourist centre, attracting moneyed society types on the “Grand Tour” of Europe and also bringing in such names as King George and the German Kaiser.
It’s a town perched high on a cliff a couple hundred metres above the Mediterranean, maybe 40 minutes south of Messina. Apparently it was built up there to provide safe harbour, so to speak, from marauding pirates back in the day when the Greeks were taking over the Mediterranean. You wind your way up some very steep and very windy and just a little scary roads, bridges and tunnels, with fabulous views, and then find yourself in a giant parking lot with a million buses, even on a weekday in October. It was crowded, but not crazy crowded.
The main street, Corso Umberto, has a few t-shirt shops but mostly lovely stores selling beautiful purses, men’s clothing. There are a couple of fine churches but the views command more attention in my book; lovely stretches out towards Calabria in southern Italy and down along the coast of Sicily. There are a series of small alleyways leading both ways off the main streets, some quite tiny and some larger ones that lead to small hotels or shops or fine-looking restaurants with patios. There’s a huge cliff looming over the town, with the remnants of an old castle. And there are flowers everywhere; balconies strewn with bougainvillea in vivid shades of pink, orange and purple. It’s quite stunning, even with all the commerce and people milling about.
As great as the village is, it can’t even hold a candle to the Greek Theatre on the edge of town. I’ve been to a lot of great places, including the Parthenon in Greece, and this is one of the finest ancient theatres you’ll find on the planet. The Greeks built a large amphitheatre on the hill, with breathtaking views down the hillside and then along the coast. It would’ve been a stunning place to watch a production, and we were told it held 5,400 spectactors in Greek times.
The Romans came along and tore up some of the seats and also built huge columns behind the stage and up around the top, giving the place a combined Greco-Roman influence that’s hugely impressive. Many of the columns have disappeared due to the ravages of time, but that only adds to the mystique. The views from the small park-like area above the theatre also are stunning, so don’t limit yourself to the theatre area proper.
Back in town, only a few feet from the theatre, the shops are quite pretty. Sure, there are places selling The Godfather aprons and Forza Italia soccer shirts, but you also can find Kiko makeup from Milano and Furla and beautiful blue suede shoes for men, plus places selling cute earrings shaped like everything from Vespa’s to baby buggies and ketchup bottles. We stopped at La Gelateria Bar for two large scoops of gelato (chocolate and raspberry flavours) for 2.50 Euros; less than $4.
We only had a few hours but it would be easy to lose yourself for a few days in the cafes and churches and courtyards. Not to mention the Greek Theatre, which must be magical at sunset.
The next day we pulled into Sorrento. A lot of folks headed to Capri or Positano. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting both on nicer days in summer so opted to stay close to the boat the get packed and visit the town of Sorrento, which sits high on a dark bluff of rocky land high above the water, facing Naples.
Sorrento is nowhere near as pretty as Positano, which clings to a cliff as if for dear life, or as Capri. But it’s got its charms; small salumeria shops selling spicy salami, fun cafes and some pretty good shirt shops on one of the alleys, where I found some nice stuff for about $40 a pop. A fellow at one of the gelato shops told me it takes 55 cups of espresso for one small container of coffee gelato, which is impressive.
We also stopped at a shop selling limoncello (there are a million of them) and had a brief lesson on how the better ones use more lemons and less sugar. Of course, we bought a bottle to take home. And the owner, a nice guy in his 30’s, insisted on having his photo taken with my wife and then gave her a kiss on both cheeks. The streets are fun to wander about, with small alleyways and pretty courtyards.
I also found two places worth mentioning specifically. The first is the Sedile Dominova, which looks like an old bank building with two walls open to the elements but in fact was a government centre in old Roman times. They now have a small series of tables where locals gather for coffee under a dome painted with a series of incredibly rich, atmospheric frescoes in deep reds and blues and golds.
I had never heard of this place and it was like walking into a dream. Absolutely magical. I’ve since read it’s a café where I might have been able to sit and eat. I’d love nothing more than to try next time around, I can tell you that.
I walked from there down to the edge of town, overlooking the water, and spotted a beautiful, classy old hotel called Tramontano. There’s an extensive garden out front with flowers and towering cactus, and the lobby is a fabulous design with yellow walls and plenty of light and small statues. There’s a dreamy sitting room next to a verandah that looks out over the sea and over to Naples; an absolutely perfect place for a cappuccino, even if does cost $6. A very classy, quiet spot in a busy town that speaks of older, more genteel days. I would love to stay a night and spend a morning having my breakfast on the verandah and then checking out the Sedille Dominova.
That’s it for my Silversea cruise. An INCREDIBLE experience that finished at the port of Rome on Saturday morning, where staff from the cruise line were hugely helpful in checking people’s flight times and pointing them to the precise gate they needed to go to to catch their flights.